Here in the harsh north, today, April 17, is the first flicker of something like spring. The plastic comes off the windows and the wind makes its first appearance inside my old house since October. The new warming air blows up aureoles of dust from the piles of books in window ledges, on coffee tables, rising from the floor in the cobwebby corners. The piano and the harpsichord are heaped with two-foot stacks of scores: Haydn, Clementi, Fats Waller, the Hamburg Bach, James P. Johnson. In the front hall sit a couple of cases of fresh books waiting to be unloaded. Maybe the kitchen table? We can always eat out. In his 50s, a man needs a motto for his life to sew it together with some sense of direction. Here’s mine: He ran out of shelf space, again.
Bill Holm Sings the Sagas of His Prairie Home
Imagine Walt Whitman living on the wind-swept plains of western Minnesota. Picture him in the body of a ruddy, six-foot-six-inch, white-bearded 57-year-old Icelandic American who inhabits what he calls a ‘Luddite house, the home of many books but few machines.’ Cram in a kit-built clavichord and two zpianos–an upright and a grand–and you begin to get a glimpse of poet and essayist Bill Holm in his lair. ‘To write I need a table, a pencil, and a piano,’ he explains. ‘The gods don’t care about a few wrong notes,’ he has written, ‘if you strike them with a full heart.’
Author of more than a half dozen books, Holm lives in Minneota, Minnesota, an Icelandic-influenced small town whose history and people he explores in The Heart Can Be Filled Anywhere on Earth. Originally published in 1996, the book has recently been reissued by Milkweed Editions, his longtime publisher. Though closely tied to the place he grew up in, left, and then returned to, he has also written about the wider world. Coming Home Crazy (1990) chronicles his experiences teaching in China. Eccentric Islands: Travels Real and Imaginary (2000) tells of visits to Iceland, Molokai, and Madagascar. Holm, who teaches English at Southwest State University in nearby Marshall, recently bought a fishing shanty 20 miles south of the Arctic Circle in Iceland–a place to get away from the hectic pace of life in Minneota (population 1,417).
As you wander from room to room, notice that no bed or couch is without both a shelf and an extra pile of books within arm’s length. Both bathrooms are well stocked. There’s a couple hundred cookbooks in the kitchen, plus the current piles of Chinese history and poetry waiting on the old oak hutch to be read today. All these tons of heavy books live precariously on top of an old cracked foundation built right over the tall grass prairie. The century-old beams of the house lean toward each other wearily, making crooked doorways, floors that slant toward the center. The bookcases are all shimmed and jerry-built to keep them upright. Each day new books arrive by mail, or after little side trips to library sales or used-book stores for bargains too good to be ignored.
Since I live in this chaos of print, I must always have wanted it. The nest we make is the mirror of our soul. Indeed, my first bedroom in an old farmhouse eight miles north was clotted with books too. A neighbor stored my bedroom furniture when my mother and father moved off the farm 35 years ago. She returned the bed and table last year. I opened the drawer and found it full of paper left there since 1961. The Complete Poems of Poe, a Gideon New Testament (to gather ammunition for argument), Unitarian pamphlets, 100 Best-Loved Poems, a 1960 Yale catalog (I had big dreams), and small notebooks full of poems, essays, and quotations. This was a teenager not likely to love Nixon, serve in Vietnam gladly, make any money, or amount to much in the American scheme of things. He didn’t. The drawer told the truth. But he gathered books and music scores by the thousands, and now finds himself almost buried by them. He is out of shelf space again.
I love books in two ways. First, I read them like an addict. A day,even an hour or two,without print makes me edgy and hungry. I hide books in my car, both trunk and cubbyhole, in my office drawers, in side pockets of duffel bags. I buy small books to carry in my shirt pocket, just in case. But I love books also as they might be loved by an illiterate sensualist. I love the bite of lead type on heavy rag paper, the sexy swirls of marbled endpapers, the gleam and velvety smoothness of Morocco calf, the delicate India paper covering the heavy etching of the frontispiece, the faint perfume of mildew in old English editions, the ghost of smells of ink and glue in bindings. I feel my books. I run my hands over them as over skin or fur. I stroke them and sniff them and admire them from various angles in various light. The first time I visited a Russian Orthodox church (in Sitka, Alaska), I watched the black-mustached metropolitan emerge from behind his gold doors in a great cloud of incense. The choir surged louder in four almost-in-tune parts. The metropolitan bent ceremoniously down and kissed the Book. That’s right, I thought! The right thing to do with a book! I will go home to Minnesota and light a candle and every night I will kiss a book. Tomorrow Leaves of Grass, and after that The Iliad and after that The Well-Tempered Clavier and after that some random shelfless book from the top of a dusty pile that’s lonesome for the living breath of a human being. More shelf space, says the Universe, more shelf space!
From A View from the Loft, a magazine published by the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. Subscriptions: $25/yr. (11 issues) from Open Book, 1011 Washington Ave. S., Suite 200, Minneapolis, MN 55415. Holm